We now know who Cincinnati is going to play in the NCAA Tournament. That would be the Saint Joseph's Hawks. But what do we know about those pesky bros from Philadelphia? Well, not much. Luckily, we were able to convince Josh Verlin of City of Basketball Love to give us the skinny on the Hawks and all that they stand for.
DTD: The Hawks enjoyed quite a turnaround this season, going from a 13-18 afterthought to Atlantic 10 champions. What were the main reasons for the resurgence?
Josh Verlin (City of Basketball Love): This isn’t a total shocker of a turnaround--I even said in CoBL’s bold predictions before the season that Saint Joseph’s would finish in the top 3 of the A-10 (argh, so close!), as I felt that their improving young players would far outpace the seniors that left. But I don’t think many people had St. Joe’s dancing for the second time in three years, and it’s taken a lot of different things coming together to account for the sudden rise.
Everybody knew DeAndre Bembry was in for a big junior season, but senior Isaiah Miles (18.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg) absolutely blew up, winning Atlantic 10 Most Improved Player honors and a spot on the all-league second team, plus A-10 tourney Most Outstanding Player honors following SJU’s run to the A-10 championship this past weekend. A 6-8 forward, Miles is shooting 38.8 percent from 3-point range and 88.3 percent from the foul line, and arguably should have been a first team all-conference selection. Then add in players like senior Aaron Brown (10.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg) and sophomore James Demery (8.1 ppg) finding their roles, and it’s made for a much more cohesive bunch than a year ago.
DeAndre Bembry and Isaiah Miles appear to be the players Cincinnati will have to keep an eye on. What does each do well and what are some weaknesses that the Bearcats can exploit?
For those who haven’t seen Bembry, he’s a treat to watch, as his numbers attest: 17.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 4.5 apg, 1.4 spg. The athletic 6-6 wing is already No. 16 all-time in scoring (1,551 points) and is three points back of passing Boo Williams for No. 15; if he sticks around for his final year, he’ll have a good shot to pass Jameer Nelson (2,094) for the school scoring record. This is far from a foregone conclusion, especially if the Hawks win a few games in the tournament. It’s tough to really slow Bembry down; if defenses focus too much attention on him, he’ll become more of a point guard and distributes for the rest of his teammates, and he’s capable of scoring from all three levels against top defenders. The best thing to do is just wear him out, guard him full-court as much as possible and make him move constantly to get the ball, but he’s far from the only problem Cinci will have to deal with.
As for Miles, who we’ve already discussed somewhat, he’s a stretch-forward who the Hawks’ coaches do a good job of creating space for with the use of screens and slips; he’s a terrific 3-point shooter, as discussed, but also likes the baseline jumper and will spot up from just about anywhere; like the rest of the St. Joe’s lineup, he won’t really post up unless he has a matchup advantage, and I can’t imagine SJU is going to try to post up much against this Cinci defense to begin with.
Who is a player that might not get as much attention that will be a difference-maker in this game?
One of the biggest reasons for the resurgence has been the play of St. Joe’s point guards, sophomore Shavar Newkirk and freshman Lamarr Kimble, both of whom see right around 20 minutes per game. Newkirk tends to start while Kimble comes off the bench, but both are equally valuable, contributing a combined 14.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg and 5.4 assists against 2.7 turnovers; compare those numbers with last year’s point guard, Chris Wilson--who averaged 8.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.7 apg and 1.6 tpg in 33 minutes--and you’ll see a considerable boost. Kimble, a 5-10 freshman out of Philadelphia high school powerhouse Neumann-Goretti, has been playing some of his best basketball down the stretch, including a six-point, nine-assist effort against VCU in the Atlantic 10 Championship. Against a tough Cinci defense, SJU will need both of its point guards to put in strong efforts to stay in control and not just have to rely on Bembry to handle the load.
St. Joe’s is a strong offensive team, ranking second in the Atlantic 10 in scoring during league games (78.8 PPG). What is the secret to the Hawks’ offensive success and how do they hope to replicate it against Cincinnati’s smothering defense?
St. Joe’s is one of those teams that almost always has five players on the floor with a strong offensive IQ and scoring ability, though there are obviously differing skillsets. Bembry and Miles lead the way, of course, but in addition to them and then already-discussed point guard production, Phil Martelli and his staff can turn to a few other contributors who have all chipped in at points this season. Demery, a hyper-athletic 6-6 wing, is averaging 8.1 ppg and 3.7 rpg off the bench, a much better role for him than the starting slot he was forced into last year. Senior big man Papa Ndao (5.3 ppg), a 6-8 forward, is a 37.0 percent 3-point shooter, and freshman forward Pierfrancesco ("Cecco") Oliva is averaging 4.0 ppg and 3.7 as well. That rounds out the main eight-man rotation for Martelli, which I would expect him to stick with moving forward, using junior center Javon Baumann or freshman wing Chris Clover only in case of emergency. They’re great at limiting their turnovers and taking advantage of their fast-break opportunities with top-notch finishers like Bembry, Demery, Newkirk and Kimble, and love to exploit mismatches, especially with Bembry/Miles/Brown, for easy buckets.
Forcing turnovers is something Cincinnati does often, but St. Joe’s is pretty careful with the ball, ranking 28th nationally in turnovers (341). What have you seen as keys to the Hawks’ talents for ball control?
Remember those point guards I talked about? Add in Bembry, and at any point St. Joe’s has two players on the floor who are high-level ball handlers, plus a few others who tend to stay within their comfort zones and rely on the offense to get their looks. Their bigs, including Miles and Oliva, are good passers; in general, the Hawks play well within their offensive concepts, picking their times to attack and when to slow things up and play out a possession.
Can you please explain to me why the Hawk mascot is just a Halloween costume made 60 years ago by Phil Martelli’s mom?
I can’t. But at least it’s not Penn State’s.
Lastly, who wins and why? (Hint: The correct answer is Cincinnati).
First, let it be known that I am just terrible when it comes to picks and overthinking everything. Let’s start with common opponents: Cinci lost twice to Temple, which St. Joe’s beat. SJU did split two meetings with VCU, which the Bearcats downed in December. So I think that’s a slight advantage for SJU. Neither team is particularly deep, and they’re both upperclassman-driven with a few underclassmen chipping in. Frankly I think St. Joe’s is playing a little better right now, and Cinci doesn’t have a strong home-court advantage to rely on. Hawks take it, 65-62.
Editor's Note: Josh is really a swell guy and was great to work with on this. However, THE ANSWER IS RIGHT THERE IN BLACK AND WHITE. Cincinnati, not St. Joe's, is going to win.